HMI celebrates Black History Month
Every Wednesday in February, Hetrick-Martin Institute will be recognizing Black LGBTQIA+ individuals for their achievements and contributions to the community.
We’re proudly kicking off Black History Month by spotlighting Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a trans rights activist, Stonewall uprising veteran, and Attica State Prison survivor. As a Black trans woman, she, herself, experienced homelessness and incarceration. Miss Major (as she is often referred) led the San Francisco-based Trans Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP)—where she served as the first Executive Director—in advocating for incarcerated trans women. Her activism was, in part, fueled by the mistreatment of trans women of color who have survived police brutality and incarceration in men’s jails and prisons. She has spent 40 years using her platform to speak about the prison system contributing to the incarceration of transgender individuals, particularly trans people of color and those with low incomes. She visits prisons on a bimonthly basis to support incarcerated transgender people and is an advocate for the safety of transgender prisoners, who are at high risk of being a victim of physical or sexual violence while incarcerated. The award-winning documentary, “Major!” available to view on Amazon Prime gives insight into her personal story and activism. Miss Major lives in Arkansas with her partner Beck, who identifies as a transgender male. Beck gave birth to their child Asiah in 2021.
As part of our Black History Month tribute, today we’re featuring Phill Wilson, well-known within the LGBTQIA+ Black community for his activism and expertise in HIV/AIDS public policy and advocacy. After he and his partner, Chris Brownlie, were diagnosed with HIV in the early 80s—when the AIDS epidemic was new and outreach was primarily focused on white, queer communities—Phill recognized the black community was being neglected and something needed to be done. He became more active, joining the AIDS Project in Los Angeles as Director of Policy and Planning among other projects. Shortly after losing his partner in 1989 to an HIV-related illness, Phill joined the Los Angeles HIV Health Commission, serving as co-chair for five years before becoming a member of the HRSA AIDS Advisory Committee. Phill then founded the Black AIDS Institute in 1999, where he served as President and CEO for 20 years. During that time, his involvement and activism expanded—most notably, his work alongside other activists to secure additional funding from the CDC to educate the Black community on HIV/AIDS. Their efforts resulted in a 5-year campaign, “Act Against AIDS”, which awarded grants to 14 Black organizations to expand their work. Later in his career, he was appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
Phill has been involved in the founding of several other AIDS service and community-based organizations, and he has worked extensively on HIV/AIDS policy, research, prevention, and treatment issues in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Today, he sits on the amfAR Board of Trustees and formerly served as Vice-Chair of the Foundation for the AIDS Monument Board of Directors. He has written countless articles for publications including the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. His contributions have made a significant impact on the fight against AIDS, particularly within the black community. In an interview last October with a local ABC News station, he said, “Had we not done the work on HIV and AIDS, we would not have a Covid-19 vaccine today. We would not have been able to manifest what I honestly believe has been a relatively rapid response to monkeypox.” Thank you, Phill.
Referred to as the “Rosa Parks of the Gay Community” for her role in the Stonewall Riots, Stormé DeLarverie was a biracial, butch lesbian activist who we proudly recognize today as part of Black History Month. She was born in New Orleans in 1920 to a Black mother who was a servant for her father, a wealthy white man who would later marry her mother and move to California. Stormé says she was never issued a birth certificate and consequently never knew her date of birth, so she celebrated it on Christmas Eve, December 24. At the age of 18, she came out as a lesbian and moved to Chicago, after years of struggles and bullying she endured as a biracial youth growing up in the South. She later went onto tour with the Jewel Box Revue as MC of the first racially integrated drag revue in the country. Stormé was the only female performing on the tour, always donning a white tuxedo when she performed as a Drag King. She worked alongside all men who performed drag for 14 years touring all of North America, including the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Stormé later landed in New York City, where it has been said she ignited the Stonewall Uprising on June 28, 1969, after throwing the first punch at a police officer who shoved her during the raid on the Stonewall Inn. This resulted in four officers attacking and handcuffing her, with one officer hitting her on the head with his baton. This action is said to be what fueled the Stonewall Riots—and why to this day, she is referred to the “Rosa Parks” of the gay community.
She remained active in NYC’s queer community, working as a bouncer for several lesbian bars including the Cubby Hole and Henrietta Hudson. Stormé was active with the Stonewall Veterans Association, where she held various leadership positions and today is recognized on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall Inn. Protecting the community was important to Stormé so she worked as a self-appointed street patrol—“Guardian of Lesbians in the Village”, as she called herself. She kept an eye out for what she referred to as “ugliness”—any form of intolerance, bullying or abuse of her “baby girls.” Legally-armed, Stormé worked the neighborhood up until her 80’s, protecting lesbians and street kids and ensuring they were always safe. She passed in 2014 and was survived by no immediate family members. According to one of her legal guardians, Lisa Cannistraci, Stormé lived with her partner, Diana, a dancer for about 25 years until she died. She always carried a photograph of Diana with her after her death. It’s also worth noting that Stormé was not only a staunch gay rights activist, but she was also involved in fundraisers for women who were victims of domestic violence and their children, both as an organizer and performer.
You can read more about Stormé in The Life of Stormé DeLarverie: The Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ+ Community and watch her interview after receiving the Lifetime Achievement award by Sage, in this short video, “A Stormé Life” by In The Life Media.
We’re closing out Black History Month by spotlighting none other than the Godfather of Vogue, Willi Ninja. Willi helped shape the dance form of voguing—performing at Washington Square Park and Christopher Street Pier before making his debut in Harlem Drag Balls, where he soon became a fixture in the ballroom scene. Although Willi didn’t originate “voguing”, he redefined the technique to create a unique style of movement comprised of angular movements, exaggerated model poses and mime-like choreography. He drew inspiration from Fred Astaire, Olympic gymnasts, a young Michael Jackson, haute couture and martial arts … hence “Ninja”. Willi was a natural born, self-taught dancer who began performing at the early age of 7 years old and who would later become a well-known and highly regarded dancer and choreographer. He went as far as Europe and Japan to teach voguing and helped bring visibility to the dance form all over the world.
Willi caught the attention of Jennie Livingston, director of Paris is Burning, who featured him in the award-winning documentary about NYC’s drag vogue-ball scene. The film helped springboard his career due to its box office success and critical acclaim. He went onto choreograph and appear in concerts and music videos including Malcom McLaren’s “Deep in Vogue” and he inspired Madonna’s number one song, “Vogue”. More than two decades later, Madonna performed “Vogue” at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2012 with two of Willi’s mentees from the House of Ninja, Benny (Father of the House of Ninja) and Javier.
Willi also worked with high-profile designers such as Chanel, Thierry Mugler, Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gaultier, modeling in their runway shows, coaching models like Naomi Campbell and Iman, and helping Paris Hilton with her red carpet sashay. In 2004, Willi opened EON (Elements of Ninja) modeling agency where he taught female models to enhance their femininity through grace and poise. He made a name for himself and was invited to appear on television series like America’s Next Top Model and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Willi also appeared in the documentary, Check Your Body at the Door, about the underground NYC club scene and its dancers in the 90s.
Before his road to a very successful career, Willi founded the House of Ninja in NYC in the early 80s. He was “mother” of the house for queer and trans youth. The Harlem drag ball scene offered Black and Latino young people a safe space to express themselves freely. Willi, a self-described butch queen, was androgynous on and off stage, solely interested in showcasing his talent and technique in a gender fluid form. When he wasn’t performing, he used his platform to bring awareness to HIV/AIDS prevention in the ballroom scene throughout the 80’s. In 2003 Willi was diagnosed with HIV but continued working to support his elderly mom by mentoring dancers and models until he lost his sight and became paralyzed. He died of AIDS-related heart failure in 2006 at the age of 46, surrounded by the children of his house.
When learning about his death, Jennie Livingston called Willi a “supremely gifted dancer” who was dedicated to his craft, and noted that he was “one of the main reasons” she made the film, Paris is Burning. The House of Ninja has kept his legacy alive by raising HIV/AIDS awareness on behalf of their mother. To this day, Willi is a “central figure in LGBTQIA+ and gender studies for his passionate and nonconforming expression as an artist”, and his legacy will continue to serve as an inspiration in contemporary pop culture as we’ve seen more of lately with shows like FX’s Pose and HBOMax’s Legendary.